This article is part of our special report EU citizens at a legal crossroad.
As citizens have to deal more and more with cross-border legal issues, the EU needs to work towards ensuring better cooperation and harmonisation of laws between member states.
An exhibition in the European Parliament, commissioned by the Notaries of Europe, displays the will of Queen Isabella the Catholic or Giuseppe Verdi, or the power of attorney given by Miguel de Cervantes to take legal action against those who printed or intended to print “El Quijote.”
History can be traced through documents and legal issues were part of the daily lives of public figures back then as much as they are for ordinary citizens now. While some economic and physical barriers have been slowly torn down thanks to the European integration in this and the past century, legal borders are still an issue.
As a new political cycle begins, the Notaries of Europe, representing practitioners in 22 member states, call for more cooperation and working towards the harmonisation of certain legislations to ensure better management of cross-border affairs.
“We have to look at all political fields, it is family law, succession law, real estate law…” Angelika Niebler, member of the European Parliament (Germany, EPP), told EURACTIV and insisted on the need for legal certainty in all these areas.
The EU has progressed in increasing legal cooperation and harmonisation across the bloc. Since 2015, there is a European Certificate of Succession and an EU regulation that determines the jurisdiction, applicable law and many other legal things related to the matter, making easier international successions.
But it is still not enough. “I think the harmonisation of inheritance laws in all countries is today a utopian dream, a long-term work,” Pierre-Luc Vogel, president of Notaries of Europe, told EURACTIV.
Being able to decide the applicable law, as established by the EU regulation, “is more pragmatic” and a big step forward.
Earlier this year, new legislation was secured to rule the property regimes for marriages and registered partners in the Union. However, as the regulation touches upon family law – a sensitive issue in all countries – the legislation was adopted through enhanced cooperation only by 18 member states.
However, many issues affecting the lives of citizens are still pending and legislation needs to be updated to face up to the new challenges.
For instance, digitalisation has created a vacuum and EU legislation to regulate digital assets is required but also the use of digital means to reduce paperwork and make procedures easier.
Protection for the most vulnerable
Another important piece of legislation still missing is the coordination between member states to recognise the regimes of protection for vulnerable adults.
The Hague Convention (2000) for the protection of vulnerable adults, meaning people “temporarily or permanently unable to manage their personal affairs or their property because of an impairment or insufficiency of their personal faculties,” is the existing international instrument to do so.
Only ten member states, Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Portugal and the United Kingdom, have so far ratified the convention. This has raised concerns over potential gaps in the protection of vulnerable adults in Europe, particularly in cross-border situations.
Both the Commission and the Parliament have been encouraging member states to proceed with the ratification process so that EU legislation can be further developed. So far, without much success.
“We need to make sure that when we are protected in our country of origin, we are protected all across Europe,” Vogel argued.
Notaries as gatekeepers in money laundering
Cases such as the Panama Papers have put money laundry in the EU at the core in the eye of the storm. Notaries claim to be “a central element” in the action of the member states in the fight against money laundry.
“It is their status as civil servants that make notaries so engaged in the fight against money laundering,” Pierre-Luc Vogel, president of Notaries of Europe told EURACTIV.
The Commission maintains that “it is essential that gatekeepers apply measures to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing.” An EU regulation obliges banks and other entities to identify and verify the identity of clients, monitor transactions and report suspicious transactions.
However, notaries demand better cooperation between member states and protection for those who come forward as such information is often very sensitive. “It is very important to make sure all notaries work the same way on this particular issue,” Vogel underlined.
The Notaries of Europe are members of one of the working groups the European Commission has established to better address this challenge that costs EU taxpayers billions of euros, including through training.
Vogel welcomed the “strong willingness” in the upcoming Commission of having EU institutions “closer to citizens’ worries” and “one of the first concerns is to build a Europe that protects.”
“Our profession is the legal certainty,” the president of Notaries said, and therefore their objective is to make transactions and legal proceedings safe.
“A Europe that protects is a Europe that needs notaries,” the president said.